Friday, December 23, 2016

Ratzinger and the “conservatives” who sabotaged Tradition

Joseph Ratzinger saw the Second Vatican Council as destiny. 

As theological advisor to Cardinal Frings, Joseph Ratzinger experienced first-hand the breathtaking pace at which initiatives, work sessions, brainstorming and document preparation took place in the four sessions of that great adventure, during which he worked closely with prominent bishops and theologians of the 20th century, from Congar to Rahner, from Frings to Volk, from De Lubak to Danièlou. 

As Prefect of the former Holy Office, he played a major part in shaping the Catechism of the Catholic Church that was published in 1992, systematically presenting the depositum fidei in light of the Second Vatican Council. 

As Pope he tried to heal the schism with Lefebvrian traditionalists, which led to him being accused of opening up to the “’anti-conciliar’ Church”. 

Once Ratzinger, a keen advocate of conciliar reform, became the Successor of Peter, he also defended an appropriate “hermeneutics” of Vatican II, stressing that the reform did not change the Church’s genetics in any way. 

But the central focus which Joseph Ratzinger gave Vatican II in his work became something of an enigma that had to be decoded. Many over the years have strived to scrutinise the “coherence” of Ratzinger’s approach, possibly seeking to make an embarrassing revelation about a change of sides that could demonstrate that he became an informer late in the day. 

On the opposite front, there have been those who have insinuated a “modernist” tendency that remained alive like burning embers beneath the troubled moves that were made when he was the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy. 

The first volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s writings at and on Vatican II has now been published in Italy, by the Vatican Publishing House. The 7th volume of Ratzinger’s Opera Omnia without footnotes, allows the reader to feel the intensity with which the Council and its consequences were experienced - 726 pages of suggestions for today’s Church. 

What makes Joseph Ratzinger’s texts so comfortingly current is the underlying links between the intuitions and enthusiasm of the then young theology professor and the sensus Ecclesiae of the octogenarian Pope Francis. The freshness and current relevance of the content come from what Ratzinger already pointed to as the genuine source of conciliar reform. The same source feeds the “pastoral conversion” advocated by the Successor of Peter today and is still met with resistance and organised sabotage attempts. 

In one of the passages of the recently published texts on the Council, Ratzinger captures and describes the reality of the Council in a clear and very current way. The dynamics he outlined then are very similar to the dynamics that shape today’s Church. His intuition shines again in his description of the third conciliar phase, in the pages he devotes to the “previous explanatory note”, the text signed by Cardinal Pericle Felici, which explains the criteria for interpreting the passages on episcopal collegiality contained in the Apostolic Constitution Lumen Gentium: the ones the conciliar minority incessantly contested, pointing to them as a factor that could potentially weaken papal authority. 

The way Ratzinger sees it, the previous Note – which he did not appreciate at all – had led to the emergence, between the lines, of two fundamental options at loggerheads in the Council: on the one hand there was one school of thought that takes the vastness of the Christian Tradition as the starting point and seeks to describe the constant breadth of ecclesial possibilities based on this. On the other hand, we find a purely systematic school of thought, which only admits the current legal form of the Church as a criterion for its reflections and therefore necessarily fears that any action that strays from this will lead nowhere. 

Ratzinger holds that the “conservatism” of the second option was rooted “in its detachment from history and therefore in an underlying “lack” of Tradition, in other words openness towards Christian history as a whole”. Already then, Ratzinger’s factual description overturned the pre-packaged framework, which the Council was describing in its meetings as a conflict between “conservatives” who were concerned about potential “deviations” from Tradition and “progressivists” who were driven by modernist impulses. The exact opposite was the truth, Ratzinger explained. “It was those who were labelled “progressivists” or at least “most of them”, who were striving to achieve a “return to the breadth and richness of what had been passed down”. They saw the source of the renewal they sought, in the “intrinsic broad-mindedness of the Church”.  

It is still the case today that those who uphold the doctrine and Tradition of the Catholic Church in a grossly exaggerated way, are the very ones who stand in the way of the Church proceeding in the simplicity of Tradition. The leitmotif in all of Ratzinger’s contributions and interventions in the vast work done by the Council, is the desire to return to the original source in order to make the most of the entire “breadth and richness of everything that was passed down”: from his writings on the Divine Revelation to those regarding the mission, from his critical comments on the “optimistic” undertones of the Gaudium et Spes Constitution on the Church today to his incredibly profound reflections on the “crucial battle” over episcopal collegiality in the Church, all of which aim to attest and document the fact that the doctrine of collegiality is not theological neophilia but is part of Tradition. 

In response to those who claimed that the terms College and collegiality are not found in the Gospel, Ratzinger, together with his theologian colleagues Karl Rahner and Gustave Martelet pointed out that the same could be said about the terms “Primate” and “Infallibility”. “Tradition and the magisterium,” the future Pope Benedict wrote at the time, “must always develop the seed contained in the Scripture”. 

Because the Church, Christ’s Bride, is not a self-sufficient holy entity that exists outside time and space and must be defended at all costs from any kind of criticism. It recognises itself as a reality that remains dependant on Christ’s active grace as it journeys through history, “constantly in need of renewal,” “characterised by weakness and sin” and therefore “always in need of the tenderness of a forgiving God”.

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